Anna's Blog / Students Blogs

Why do some people become psychopaths?

Ted Bundy. An American serial killer who has confessed to killing 30 Victims between 1974 and 1978. The number is thought to be much higher than this.

Cases such as this have provided insight into psychopathic characteristics, and Essi Veding takes us through the current understanding of how children may develop these characteristics, and ultimately become psychopaths.

Take Jeffrey Bailey. At 9 years old, Jeffrey pushed a toddler into the deep end of a swimming pool and pulled up a chair to watch and the toddler struggled and drowned. Jeffrey later went on to explain how he found it interesting to watch, without showing any remorse and seeming to enjoy the attention of the trial.

There are a number of characteristics which Essi uses to distinguish children with psychopathic traits – termed callous unemotional (CU) children – and allows us to distinguish the difference between these children and children with antisocial behavioural problems.

The characteristics of CU children can be observed in every day events. For example, children, when caught stealing cookies will feel guilty or remorseful. They may want they cookie, but they are not happy when they realise their parents are upset with them. This holds true for children with antisocial behaviour, but a child with CU traits will be unrepentant . Additional characteristics include lacking empathy, having shallow affect, manipulating others and having high self importance.

Children with these CU characteristics find it difficult to recognise emotions when shown faces which slowly display emotions such as anger or sadness. Why do they find it difficult to process other peoples distress? They say that they don’t feel fear, So is this a case of not recognising distress in others, as they havent experienced it themselves? Brain scanning experiments have shown this to be true. When shown images of scared people, children with antisocial behaviour, autism or attention deficit disorders will feel fear and this can be detected in MRI scans. Low and behold, this area of brain activity is significantly less active in children with CU traits. Taking this further, the startled response can be measured by viewing a range of quickly displayed images with scary images randomly shown and loud noises randomly played. The child’s blink is measured and loud noises induce a startled response – a blink, which is enhanced by scary images in children without CU, yet there is no enhancement of this startled response if the child has CU.

So, children with these CU traits show less fear and are unable to recognise distress in others. Additionally, they are less able to process anger and threats, showing less emotional processesing to these characteristics.

The question Essi Veding is asking is when, and how, does these traits develop? Is this genetic or environmental? A behavioural or pyschological problem?

Twin studies were employed to determine if this is a genetic trait. Identical twins are monozygotic, they share the same DNA and are therefor essentially clones of each other, until environmental factors have an influence. By comparing identical twins and non identical twins – who are fertilised from different eggs and so have similar yet not identicald genetics, the degree to which these traits are genetic can be determined.

Results show that whilst both antisocial behavioural characteristics and CU characteristics both have genetic and environmental influences, antisocial behavioural characteristics are largely environmental. CU traits, however, are predominantly genetic, with a genetic influence of 80%. This, however, does leave room for environmental influence, and does not mean that this genetic vulnerability is the same as destiny.

Work is being undertaken to identify which genes are responsible for these characteristics. Although one specific gene has not been shown to be responsible yet, a gene which encodes for a serotonin transporter may have an influence over these traits. Children with the L allele of this gene in low resource neighbourhoods are more likely to develop these traits than children in the same neighbourhood with different alleles. This allele doesn’t mean the children will definitely develop these traits, and children with the L allele in high resource neighbourhoods, with no environmental hardships, develop into healthy adults. It’s therefore clear that gene/environment interactions need to be better understood.

Are there other genes involved? What genes should we focus on looking at? Brain scanning images have identified that children with these CU traits have less white matter and more grey matter. This indicates that genes involved in neuronal development may have an effect, and genome wide studies identify a number of neurodevelopmental genes as candidates for these traits, which are no doubt being studied today.

As I’ve previously mentioned, there is still a place for environment in the development of these traits. A study of parenting behaviour has identified that poorer parenting correlates with an increase in antisocial behaviour. This correlation is not present in children with CU traits.

Interestingly, although poor parenting doesn’t increase or decrease the severeness of these behaviours, good parenting does. It’s been shown (in a small, cross sectional study) that warmer parenting decreases the severeness of behaviour in children with CU traits.

It is essential to explain that children with CU traits don’t respond to punishment. They don’t process anger or threat and don’t show the same level of emotional arousal as healthy children. And so of course how do we get them to behave? Asking a CU child ‘how do you think Johnny felt when you hit him’ won’t work – the child being told off will not empathise. As positive parenting has shown to have a positive effect, new interaction techniques with these children are needed . Perhaps rewarding behaviour and preventing bad behaviour in this manner will be more effective.

The talk finished with a discussion of potential harmful labelling. There are clearly negative connotations linked to the term Callous-Unemotional, and is is easy to see how people may believe these children to be, or to definitely develop, into psychopaths. I, however, think that a strong term is essential. Labelling these children with less potent labels such as ‘uncaring’ will increase the amount of children diagnosed with this, which is unnecessary and detrimental to the child, the family and the health services. Children with these traits are evidently in need of help, and delaying this by having to identify which ‘uncaring’ children actually need this level of help, is time wasting.

I think it should be made clearer that CU children can be treated and are more likely to receive better treatment as knowledge advances, and hopefully the negative connotations linked to the term will therefore decrease.

I’m aware I’ve spoke a lot here, i found the talk possibly the most fascinating of all that ive attended so far and so have tried my best to relay the information to you. I can only apologise that I won’t have done this nearly half as well as Essi, who was clear, informative and enthusiastic.

Next blog up will be about the psychology of consciousness. Watch this space!

Anna

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